A smile crept across Jim Johnson's face, more revealing than probably he had planned. It was an honest, if uncontrollable, reaction to this question: How nice was it that the Eagles' offense actually ran the football against the Giants?

"Yeah, that was nice," Johnson said.

Was it ever.

And now, almost at the last possible second, the Eagles are looking alive and making a postseason push, thanks to a newfound running game and a much-improved defensive unit that almost shut out one of the best offenses in the league Sunday.

The top of the list of those happy with the Eagles' rushing attack:

No. 1: Brian Westbrook.

No. 2: The offensive linemen.

No. 3: Jim Johnson.

No. 4: The fans.

No. 5: The defense.

And Big Red? He doesn't crack the top 53 on that list, but that's another issue for another day.

Running the ball 41 times on Sunday helped everyone on the Eagles' team. It allowed the offensive line, and Westbrook, to get into a rhythm. It kept the ball away from the Giants. It generated 11 first downs. It resulted in a Westbrook score.

And in the third quarter, when the Eagles were heading into that nasty, swirling wind, running the ball kept their drives alive and the Giants' offense off the field, which meant that the defense got more than enough rest. New York had the ball for 3 minutes, 18 seconds in the third quarter, while the Eagles had it for 23 plays, seven of which went for first downs.

The Eagles didn't score a point in the third quarter - the Giants blocked a David Akers field-goal attempt, and Westbrook didn't scamper into the end zone ahead of Antonio Pierce until the third play of the fourth quarter - but that third quarter, thanks to the run, helped win the game.

"That [third quarter] was big," Johnson said. "I know [the offense] didn't get any points out of the first drive, but they controlled the ball. They missed the field goal, but we got the ball back for them, and they had it the rest of the quarter.

"With the wind, that was big. They did a great job. I think the last two games we've had a complete team. We've fed off of each other, too, offense and defense, we really have."

Better late than never, I guess.

It's been one of those years for Johnson. He went into the season with a terrific secondary; a deep, albeit unspectacular, defensive line; and a young but promising group of linebackers. But like the rest of the team, the defense struggled at times, allowing big numbers in crucial early NFC East games and not producing the turnovers they had promised.

Johnson said there were times when he worried about Brian Dawkins' health, although he wouldn't delve into specifics. He also had to make the tough decision to bench Omar Gaither for Akeem Jordan and to move Joselio Hanson into the nickel cornerback slot ahead of Lito Sheppard.

The move for Gaither is not necessarily permanent, Johnson said. If any of the starting linebackers gets hurt, Gaither is the next man up. But for now, Gaither is a role player, in part because Johnson said he likes Jordan's coverage skills against tight ends and running backs, and his tackling.

Johnson said that the changes have helped, and that other players, like Dawkins, have just gotten healthy in the last month. Certainly in the last two games, the defense has benefited from an offense that has moved the football, particularly on the ground.

Whatever the reasons, the Eagles' defense has held its last four opponents below 300 yards of offense and has allowed those opponents to convert less than 30 percent of their third downs. It has allowed just eight touchdowns in the last four games, and while it hasn't had a sack in the last two games, Johnson said they will come.

He doesn't know why the Eagles stumbled so badly earlier this season, but he does know that the team is healthy now.

"We're getting to play a lot of different people," Johnson said. "It's amazing sometimes how we play good against good people. We figure we've beaten three division [leaders in Arizona, Pittsburgh and New York], and then stumbled against other people. It's hard to say why. I do know . . . you want to be healthy in December, and we are healthy now."

Healthy and stopping the run. It's a good combination, one the Eagles could've used a month ago before their playoff predicament became what it is now: dire. One more loss in these last three games and the season, most likely, is over.

While the Eagles have looked like a different team the last two games, they just as easily could lose to a four-win Cleveland team Monday night. Johnson knows that, which is why he predicted that part of the coaches' jobs tomorrow when the players report back for work will be to "bring them down to earth" from the Giants win.

"We really will," Johnson said. "We'll say, 'Hey, this team is a good team, we know they have a quarterback situation, but they still have a lot of talent.' [We've] got to come out smoking, and hopefully we will. It's one of those games where we're at home, let's start winning these games at home. That will be the tone of it, I'm sure."

And maybe one of the coaches, if not a player, will whisper into Andy Reid's ear: "Let's keep running the ball, Coach. It helps everyone out."

Contact staff writer Ashley Fox
at 215-854-5064 or afox@phillynews.com.